Pro golf in Ireland again at crossroads

PROFESSIONAL golf in this country is again at a crossroads after the revelation that Smurfit Kappa are withdrawing their sponsorship of the European Open with immediate effect.

No sooner had they issued that statement than the European Tour were canvassing the notion that they wouldn’t like to see the connection between one of their flagship tournaments and its home since 1995 summarily cut off. Instead, they appeared to be offering to put up some of the €7 million they received from SKG as compensation to keep the event at Straffan for one more year.

In return, they expected that it would be played on the Palmer (or original K Club) course rather than the Smurfit lay-out, where the tournament has been held for the past few years. Dr Michael Smurfit, co-owner of the fabulous Co Kildare complex, had no problem staging the European Open for one more year — except to insist it would have to be staged over the Smurfit rather than the Palmer course.

If Dr Smurfit really wants to stage another European Open, then you have to believe it will happen, and what on the surface seem to be trifling difficulties will be overcome without too much difficulty. On the other hand, there is no better man to play hardball and there could be some tough talking to be done and some interesting days ahead before any agreement is reached.

The European Tour will have to fork out a considerable chunk of their €7m to enjoy one more year in this country, but might be glad to do so given that they need more time than is currently available to come up with a replacement sponsor for SKG, especially as their deal with Sky TV means that the event must be played either in Ireland or Britain.

Nobody is watching these developments and wondering about the true meaning of another rather vague statement from the Tour more than Tom and Judy Kane, the owners of Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort. They staged the first of three Irish Opens at their superb complex in Co Limerick last May.

The Tour has announced that: “Since the start of this year, the European Tour and Fáilte Ireland have been considering how to best advance their mutual interest and both parties have agreed a new approach. A considerable amount of work remains to be done on the detail of the new agreement, but it has been decided that Ireland’s interests would be better served by investing in re-establishing the Irish Open as one of Europe’s pre-eminent golf Championships”.

Then followed a revelation from Gillian Bowler, chairperson of Fáilte Ireland, that:

“It is our ambition to return the Irish Open to its position as one of the top golf events in

Europe with a level of funding that will secure a better date in the schedule and attract a strong field of star players playing at the best venues in Ireland”.

Nor was George O’Grady, chief executive of The European Tour, to be left out of the equation, declaring: “Much progress has been made in establishing this new strategy and securing the best possible dates for the Irish Open to meet the objectives of the Irish Government and its agencies”.

All music to the ears of Tom Kane? A better date from 2009 onward, a substantial increase in funding from the tourist board. Well, yes and no.

“Well, obviously it’s all in the detail,” he said yesterday from Florida — where he is spending a couple of weeks before returning to Limerick. “It all sounds very positive that the tourist board is getting in behind the event and I welcome anything they can bring to the table.

“The figure mentioned is €400,000 which I presume will be incremental although it remains to be seen whether all or some of that money is forthcoming. Increasing the prize fund is all very fine but it doesn’t reduce the costs of underwriting the event, so I’m continuing to work on raising the extra sponsorship required. Does a prize money increase guarantee a stronger field? I’m not too sure… the French Open put up 4m this year and virtually nobody showed up. These guys are making so much money these days that they can pick and choose where they go.”

MENTION to Kane the subject of paying financial “sweeteners” to one or two of the leading players and you sense he has to bite hard on his tongue before diplomatically replying: “I am philosophically opposed to appearance money”.

He describes as “an interesting conundrum” whether he would prefer to remain with his mid-May date or move to the first week in July, which, as we have noted, may nor not be vacated by the European Open. At present, he’s sandwiched between the Players Championship in the US and the PGA Championship at Wentworth, but also points out that the July date clashes with the AT&T event in the States — an event which carries Tiger Woods’ endorsement.

Kane is right. It does remain to be seen how much money Failte Ireland can release to the Irish Open given the amounts they ploughed into last year’s Ryder Cup, and how much they are now putting aside for the 2011 Solheim Cup clash.

Kane wonders about the wisdom of the latter and has strong views on the success or otherwise of the former: “I believe an inordinate amount of money was put into a three-day event. That’s not sour grapes talking because I don’t do sour grapes. Ask any hotelier and they will tell you the Ryder Cup did nothing for their business.”

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